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“All anti-colonial struggles are at the core about two things, repossession of lost land and restoring the centrality of indigenous culture…."
The notion of “colonialism” is defined as a centralized system in which the elites run the system for their own benefit, bleeding the economy of resources and so stunting growth and depriving the local society of just administration. The ethnicity or nationality of the ruling elites doesn’t matter. In fact the concept of “internal colonialism” – colonization by fellow citizens – has been an accepted part of development theory for more than half a century and certainly defines the situation in Afghanistan today.
Not recognizing the truth of this opening quote is at the heart of Western failures in confronting insurgencies since Vietnam until today. The truth of it can be found by dissecting most revolutionary movements. Boring down past the ideological superstructure that most “civilized” countries use to justify their occupation of “uncivilized” lands will almost always expose a lack of economic opportunity and social justice. Missing the truth of the Nkwinti quote highlights a fundamental inadequacy in how the West manages postwar stability operations, how it counters insurgencies, and even how it creates their foreign aid programs.
Our modern sensibilities often impose a concern for the social and economic rights of indigenous cultures. However, when the West has substantial direct or indirect influence over poor countries, this concern is often manifested as unbalanced support for a strong central government, usually without respect to the existing political traditions. This leads to a confusion between sovereignty and self-government, two very different things.
After the end of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we seemed to believe that we are supporting these indigenous cultures by seeking to quickly restoring their sovereignty. However, this course compels us to focus on the central government’s authority over the political economy, inevitably leading to a top-down process of administration, an approach that tends to reflect Western culture and is more likely to be an artifact of the colonial model of administration.
As a result, we ignore the political economy of the village. Scholars have studied village life for generations and know that, left alone, village government has a structure reflecting – in some manner – popular consent, and individual land rights, which is the most basic issue for most villagers. A landmark study of village life in India notes, “Most cases brought before the court have to do with land boundaries. This is the sort of thing that matters to the average citizen who is part of a small, often isolated micro-economy.
Even today in the face of a 2014 pullout, Western political leaders are in general agreement that the war in Afghanistan must be “won,” but they are operating under a set of strategic objectives that are unclear and often conflicting. This creates a process to define their objectives that is faulty and so leads to programs that are ineffective. Even though most troops will be gone, billions of dollars in programs will continue with opaque methods and purposes. This persistent lack of strategic clarity deprived us of any chance of success in Vietnam, and is being repeated today in Afghanistan thus putting the West’s enterprise there at dire risk.
Our leaders who formulate policies aimed at confronting persistent insurgencies often rely on the historic record for examples of stability operations running in parallel with counterinsurgency (COIN) programs. Although there are useful historic examples, when the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan moved from counter-terrorism to COIN the tendency was to concentrate on the lessons from the Vietnam War. But COIN in Vietnam offers us an inadequate model because analysts have consistently misread the history of that conflict.
In the end, we failed in Vietnam because we did not understand that a political consensus is always built from the periphery into the center, and that modern economies can only be built from the bottom up. But if we ignore village life – or try to bend it to our view of what it should be – we will fail in Afghanistan as we did in Vietnam.
Because we misread Vietnam’s history we have been repeating these same mistakes in Afghanistan where our policies generally are aimed at building a political economy from top down, and it will not work. This paper will consider these deficiencies and try to suggest alternative approaches to defining, planning and executing our policies and programs.
Current Counterinsurgency Policies
The new “conventional wisdom” about COIN doctrine is useful as far as it goes. But insurgencies are contests between competing visions of government. If you strip away the rhetoric – ours and theirs – it’s all about power. Although Western governments always seek to extend or defend constitutional democracy we are centuries removed from those who actually created modern governments. As a result, today we tend to reduce the process to its superstructure – the part we can see such as elections, courts, stock markets, and law books – but then ignore its foundation that is a social consensus.
The basic philosophy underlying all our modern political economies was first articulated by John Locke who wrote, “The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.” This can only be done by an effective legal code. So effective aid, not our “stuff”, begins with a basic system of rules common to every modern economy. This set of rules is necessary, though hardly sufficient.
Yet nowhere in our current COIN strategy do we find policies or programs which reflect this clear and unequivocal statement. To help Afghans plan and build a modern nation they need tools which will work and this requires that we understand these basic concepts on which all modern political economies have been built. Effective tools are necessary to operationalize our stated objectives such as rule-of-law, good governance, stimulation of self-sustaining economic growth, and combating corruption.
According to the US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who published National Defense Strategy in June 2008, the outgoing Bush administration’s policy was defined very precisely. In it Gates wrote:
Beyond security, essential ingredients of long-term success include economic development, institution building, and the rule of law, as well as promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications. We as a nation must strengthen not only our military capabilities, but also reinvigorate other important elements of national power and develop the capability to integrate, tailor, and apply these tools as needed. We must tap the full strength of America and its people.
Mr. Obama kept Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defense, so it should be no surprise that his policies are similar those of Mr. Bush, and closely follow the COIN strategy applied in Vietnam. So what does this mean in operational terms? In Vietnam, as in Afghanistan, we used Provincial Reconstruction Teams to attempt to “clear and hold,” although we now add the word “develop” to this slogan. And as in Vietnam, instead of having a coherent strategy that is soundly applied, what we have is laundry-list of vague nation-building objectives, hardly different from those which define our general approach to foreign aid, a program that has consistently failed to stimulate the rise of modern economies over decades of peacetime aid beginning after WWII.
As we should have learned in Vietnam slogans are not enough. How do we implement a strategy of “winning hearts and minds?” Our track record of success on the ground in Vietnam was dismal largely because we lacked clarity of purpose about our true objectives. And now we are repeating these same errors in Afghanistan. So the first step is to gain greater clarity about our strategy.
State or Nation?
Do we want to build a nation or a state? A nation is people in a particular area who share a consensus, expressed through a variety of institutions, about their identity. Meanwhile the state is the apparatus a nation uses to manage its affairs. As Max Weber says in Politics as a Vocation “…a state (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Do we just want a client state that protects our interests? If so, then by Weber’s definition a counter-insurgent policy focused on training security forces should be sufficient, and a number of commentators argue that this is what we are now doing in Afghanistan, despite Gates’ grander statement. A state structure can be forced on a population from the top, but a nation must coalesce from the bottom. Which do we want?
Insurgents or Insurgency?
In Iraq the Coalition was nearly beaten by an insurgency due to a feckless occupation that was largely unplanned and mindlessly administered. In both Iraq and Afghanistan we did not even define a COIN strategy for nearly six years and so initially we engaged in counter-insurgent operations much like in Vietnam, just without the daily body-counts.
And just as in post-Tet Vietnam, we have now shifted our COIN doctrine in Afghanistan from one that is “terrain-centric” to one which is “population-centric.” This approach seeks to “pacify” the population rather than just kill insurgents, although we now call it “nation-building” instead of “pacification.” But despite different terms, US policies are very similar to the CORDS effort Vietnam, which the Petraeus COIN strategy actually acknowledged.
Sovereignty or Democracy?
In Afghanistan we used the UN as cover and rushed to reestablish sovereignty rather than good government. Japan however did not regain sovereignty for seven years yet she never lost self-government. Japan’s final wartime prime minister continued to run Japan after the war. He left when he resigned over a policy disagreement.
However, in South Vietnam we kept the fiction of independence which, just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, gave enormous leverage to the elites whose political and economic agenda was different from ours. This was a key element of the American loss in Vietnam and has developed similarly in Afghanistan where a thoroughly corrupt administration has been looting American aid for a decade.
In Japan we helped the people organize themselves at the grassroots so that they were able to fashion the institutions of a modern political economy well before full sovereignty was returned to them. But because Afghanistan is sovereign, we necessarily must focus our efforts on the center, not the grassroots. Former ISAF Commander Stanley McChrystal’s 30 August 2009 “Initial Assessment” says “There is little connection between the central government and the local populations, particularly in rural areas. The top-down approach to developing government capacity has failed to produce services that reach local communities.”
Democracy or Elections?
Converting the Afghans’ weak sense of nationhood into a modern state requires more than simply tallying votes. Elections are just the mechanism to institutionalize and record a social consensus, but they don’t create it. McChrystal’s report said, “The Afghan Government has not integrated or supported traditional community governance structures…” But McChrystal’s “government-in-a-box” is an artifact of the center, not a manifestation of popular will, and so has largely become just another expensive, but pointless exercise.
Capitalism or a Market Economy?
A simple market economy is any system of private exchange while “capitalism” is a highly efficient version of a market economy. Its essence is an enforceable rule-set which has sufficient strength to govern contracts for future actions. While elites in poor countries have some options to enforce nominal rules of commerce, 70-80% of the economic activity in poor countries is almost totally informal or extralegal with enforcement based on a social consensus or physical force.
Making Rules or the Rule of Law?
Endemic poverty and corruption reflect the absence of enforceable rules for governing society. All societies have rules, but in a pre-modern society these rules are informal and applied in a limited area, sometime no more than the two parties to a transaction. Modern political economies, on the other hand, create and maintain their rules through a system of laws.
But when foreign experts speak of the “rule-of-law” in failed states it nearly always refers criminal law which is the “thou-shalt-not” rules. While understanding what you cannot do is the first part of Locke’s formula, the main role of law is to provide rules about what you can do, largely in pursuit of commerce.
A common rule-set is essential for governing commerce in a large, impersonal marketplace. However, no poor country anywhere has true rule of law. This confers on the political system the power to make and adjudicate the rules of commerce and property. Absent the rule of law, ad hoc political intervention is the only viable source of rules of commerce. So merging rule-making with governing means that the political process in poor countries usually becomes a zero-sum game aimed at claiming spoils, not governing well or sharing power. Westerners often marvel that poor people kill one another over a mayoral election in some tropical backwater. But the reason is that a change in political power is not just an inconvenient disappointment now and then, but it has existential dimensions.
Solvency or Illiquidity?
Because of Western governments focus on support for the central government, the basis of our aid is to deal with the problem of government insolvency, because governments need a lot of cash to function as a government, especially in wartime. So essentially aid becomes funding aimed at keeping the government afloat. In other words, creating a state, not a nation. Catalytic capital financing to effect a transition to modernity is a secondary concern, if even a true concern at all.
But the truth of it is that the West hasn’t got enough money to fund a process of national modernization even for the many small countries that remain mired in poverty despite decades of aid. Transferring funds to pay for specific development projects is the false lesson of the Marshall Plan whose success in Europe came to define the Bretton Woods agreements and then, eventually, confuse all our development aid. Large, short-term infusions of capital to supplement the public budget in order to pay for ministries or schools or clinics are not what poor countries need to modernize.
But the truth is that most poor countries are rich in both resources (human and natural) and capital. The problem is that this capital is frozen or illiquid, locked up by bureaucracies that do not understand a process of growth, a process that is essentially autonomous, driven by individual entrepreneurs not by governments or aid programs. We need generals and bureaucrats that can read history. Real, self-sustaining economic growth, and therefore ultimately government operations, must be largely funded by existing capital that is unlocked from the indigenous economy, not replaced with bits of foreign aid.
Helping Build a Nation
The Dean of Columbia Business School, commenting on a $7.5 billion in US aid to Pakistan asked if anyone implementing that aid “…actually knows how to successfully spend these funds?” He answers by saying that “…foreign aid has been a spectacular failure in promoting social and economic development.”
Gen. McChrystal’s August ‘09 report lists “11 Transformative Effects” which are population security, justice, transparency, elections, jobs, agricultural expansion, and local government with the rest dealing with security issues. But this is just another laundry-list, not a plan.
A manual from the US Joint Forces Command talks about a “toolbox” to pursue McChrystal’s transformative objectives but doesn’t offer any practical actions. In fact, just two pages (out of 60) are devoted to these tools, which are yet another laundry-list of general categories without any strategic or operational substance.
William Easterly details how we have provided well over $2 trillion in aid to poor countries in the last 60 years but have no graduates from the aid dole. Those countries which have modernized – Taiwan, Korea, Chile, South Africa, and Singapore – did so because they were denied aid for political reasons and so had to rationalize their economies, which they did by creating the legal and institutional framework necessary for real capitalism.
George Dunlop, formerly the deputy in charge of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ massive construction program in Iraq, wrote, “It is a big mistake to spend enormous sums of money to build large-scale government-run infrastructure projects in highly destabilized regions.” But spend money is what we do because it is how we measure success.
When Hillary Clinton made her first official visit to Afghanistan as Secretary of State in early 2009 she pronounced our aid efforts there to be a “heart-breaking failure,” and an op-ed later questioned whether she will ever do better using traditional aid mechanisms:
Our own research…found … that there was very little evidence of aid projects winning hearts and minds or promoting stability. This should not come as a surprise; after all, the major factors perceived to be fueling insecurity have little to do with a lack of social services or infrastructure. Instead, one of the main reasons given by the Afghans we interviewed for the growing insurgency was their corrupt and unjust government. 
Real economic development, starts at the grassroots and grows when fueled by millions of autonomous economic decisions made every day by entrepreneurs seeking advantage in an imperfect market. Managed development has failed to work in even peaceful states despite spending trillions. Our approach in Japan worked because we understood that “development” is a process, not a condition, and it cannot be achieved by filling gaps with “money and things.” Can we avoid more heart-breaking failure? Sadly, it seems the answer we give is “More of the same.”
Organizing the Occupation
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) reported that the planning process was a mixture of incompetence, ignorance, competition over turf, petulance and willful sabotage by bureaucratic competitors (even within same departments). Hundreds, perhaps thousands of soldiers died and billions were wasted because the bureaucracy couldn’t agree on what to do, how to do it, and who was responsible.
Similarly, there was no plan for the occupation of Afghanistan despite the military’s fame for its “contingency planning” ability. By contrast three weeks after Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt ordered the government to begin planning for the occupation of all enemy countries. This whole-of-government process created an effective plan for every aspect of political and economic activity in the defeated countries.
General Jay Garner (the man in charge of the occupation of Iraq) learned of the existence of the Pentagon’s occupation planning office “…just before the invasion when one of his aides happened across it by chance.” And the State Department was brooding about being shut out of the process with one senior official quoted as saying their zeitgeist was “If you don’t want us, we are not going to play the game.” Sadly, their “game” was about turf, not about success their scoreboard was tallied in lives and money.
A War Department memo during WWII noted that “A policy which does not win the continuing support of the American public is doomed to failure. The American public will unquestionably become restive under a prolonged occupation [and] demands for withdrawal are likely to begin within 6 months after the surrender of Japan and thereafter to build up increasing political pressure to that end.” Every major reform in Japan – including the constitution and land reform – had been implemented within five months following the US government plan. Nevertheless, sovereignty was withheld for seven years.
Development at the Fringes
Ultimately, the conflict in Afghanistan will be decided in the rural areas where insurgents get safe haven, supplies, money, intelligence and recruits. We seemed to understand that when the Army’s Agribusiness Development Teams (ADTs) and the central government’s National Solidarity Program (NSP) began small, village-level efforts. These ADTs went to the periphery and provided direct support to farmers for the entire agricultural cycle – from seed to market – but also gave the security to engage in self-defense against the Taliban.
These ADTs were not social engineers trying to impose an expert vision on local farmers, but are agriculturalists who aim to help refine existing production. Their impact on the economy and security is noteworthy. Over several years, none of the ADT’s improvements have been damaged, no cooperating farmers have been threatened, and none of the ADTs or their base camps had been attacked.
The ADT program shows that successful COIN hinges mainly on economic factors where people are involved in self-sustaining economic growth that is based on a livelihood, not handouts. Most Afghans live in the rural areas near the real economy, which is where the war will be won or lost. Nevertheless, more than eight years after removing the Taliban, civilian experts still cannot go to the periphery on a sustained basis. So instead of supporting the real economy, we waste $103 million in AID funds building a headquarters for the Ministry of Agriculture, something which is unable to do anything useful for the farmers.
The Evolution of COIN and Stability Operations
For more than half a century we fought a Cold War against Leninism, but hot wars against Maoism. The critical difference is due, in part, to the fact that we let revolutionary leaders define their actions, but ignore those who were actually in revolt. With rare candor Mao tse Tung told Andre Malraux that his Communists "...organized the peasant revolt but we did not instigate it." Essentially he admitted that China’s peasants were spontaneously in revolt against the Kuomintang and the warlords. Mao just created the narrative of their discontent and then an appealing – but false – formula to fix it.
The slogan that Mao rode to power – “land to the tiller” – addressed the lack of private property rights, not the promise of collectivization. This idea of private property has been resonating in poor countries for centuries and fueled most of those revolts that we try to study today.
Superficially, Mao’s historic revision of Leninist revolutionary theory shifted the focus from the industrial under-class to the rural under-class, the peasants. But the more fundamental shift was from jobs to land. Napoleon Bonaparte said, "A good cadastre will be my greatest achievement in my civil law.” He understood the seminal nature of property rights in stabilizing a political economy, as did his enemies who handed out property rights to gain allegiance from the peasants to confront Napoleon.
We have consistently misunderstood Maoism and so the lessons we glean from history do not reflect the objective circumstances of the revolts we aim to counter. Today we confront radical Islam, but again we are letting the leaders define the conflict. We must understand why people rebel, not why leaders who are seeking power exploit instability. Until we understand what drives a person to take up arms we can’t fashion an effective COIN strategy.
All poor people require a narrative to explain why they are poor. Their personal narrative-of-poverty if often unfocused and so varies considerably. But when a charismatic would-be leader is able to offer a credible explanation, the narrative may become more focused. And when this narrative is shared by enough people it can become a political tool whose power is magnified in an age when affluence is flagrant and so the disparity is seen as a social rather than personal failure.
If those grievances, which are illuminated by this new explanation, can’t be redressed by peaceful social processes then “politics by other means” or violence can be fomented. If we accept the insurgent leader’s narrative we will spend our time proving we are not Christian crusaders bent on destroying Islam. But if we learn the true narrative we can address the root cause of insurgency.
In 2002 Newsweek magazine published a prescient analysis of the failed states in the Middle East. They explained that their failure was not due to the rise of Islam, but to central planning, stifling regulation, no property rights, so no mortgages, and so a lack of liquidity throughout the region that choked off growth. The Arab Spring began when a roadside fruit seller immolated himself after a municipal inspector confiscated his produce. Talk to any Arab businessman and he will trace the root of the problem back to dying capital markets. It is widely believed that contracting economies and joblessness have been the root cause of the Arab Spring, not radical Islam. As with Mao in China, the Salafists had the organization and have taken over the revolutions.
Postwar Japan: Although no organized insurgency ever broke out in Japan stability was far from certain. After 20 years underground the Communist Party of Japan was legalized in 1945. Its strength was with the peasantry because, as MacArthur said, “Most Farmers in Japan were either out-and-out serfs, or they worked under an arrangement through which the landowners exorbited [sic] a high percentage of each year’s crops.” Farm production was so low that MacArthur sent a cable to Washington saying “Send me rice or send me bullets” later adding that “Men will fight before they starve.”
But the land reforms – implemented three months after the occupation began – completely changed the rural economy. MacArthur later stated that this program was “One of the most far-reaching accomplishments of the occupation…” [by which] “Japan was transferred from a feudal economy of impoverished serfs and tenant farmers into a nation of free landholders.”
And in order to distribute land the government empowered 11,000 farmers’ associations which later became political organizations that even today are the bedrock of Japanese politics. Japan’s political and economic transformation began on the periphery and moved to the center.
The Muslim Insurgency in Colonial Philippines: At the end of the Spanish-American War the Christians in the North accepted the US occupation but the Muslims (“Moros”) in the South resisted. The South had never been fully controlled by the Spanish (nor later by the Japanese) and a fifteen year insurgency started.
Although it ended as a military stalemate it was a COIN success when in 1913 the peace treaty integrated the South into the Philippine state for the first time in history. Within 20 years the US administration in the South became so popular that all Moro political and religious leaders petitioned FDR not to grant Moroland independence but rather to maintain it as an American protectorate. This success has lessons for policy-makers in Afghanistan.
The Huk Rebellion in the Philippines: The Huks were mainly peasant farmers and then, as today, land was the foundation of economic and, thus, political power. So when the US gave independence to the Philippines in 1946, the landlords demanded back rents and shares of the crops, while the landed elites began seizing property from poor farmers for large plantations. So the Huks began to use force to defend their property.
But the defense secretary Ramon Magsaysay (advised by American Ed Lansdale) understood how the peasants were being abused. They fashioned a very simple solution; the “ten-centavo telegram” which were delivered directly to Magsaysay’s office requesting “…gratis legal assistance by Philippines Judge Advocate lawyers to poor farmers in cases before the land court.” This legal aid played a decisive role in stabilizing land tenure and reducing the grievances of the peasants against the government which, in due course, caused the Huk insurgency to wither.
The Second Moro War: A decade after the Huk rebellion ended, land again played the key role in fomenting rebellion. In the Moro areas Christians from the North began using the Moro’s informal tenure rights to seize lands which quickly led to violent resistance as the Moros, like the Huks, organized militias solely to defend their property. The resistance had nothing to do with religion, at least not in the beginning. At first the Moro rebellion was led by the secular Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which sought the “…repossession of lost land and restoring the centrality of indigenous culture.” This was the true narrative of poverty but the MNLF failed and this provided an opportunity for a new narrative. In time the rebellion was taken over by Jihadists who recast the conflict in terms of their political agenda.
The Malayan Emergency: This insurgency was fueled almost exclusively by Malaya’s Chinese residents who did not have the rights of citizenship, specifically the right to vote and own land. As a result, most squatted in marginal areas on the edge of the jungle, working as day laborers or small traders.
The British authorities, who understood the true narrative, knew that they could not pacify hungry, disenfranchised people. So the military developed the “New Villages Program” which moved most of the rural Chinese to new settlements, provided them with property rights and gave them the vote. Just as with the HUKs, the revolt collapsed.
The Shining Path in Peru: The Peruvian government destroyed the Maoist Shining Path in a matter of months mainly by providing property rights to coca farmers who often grew coca because they had no viable alternative; they were squatters who could not participate in government agricultural programs, and were also targets for confiscation whenever their farms became too valuable.
So without property rights the farmers were limited to fast-growing crops like coca, and to protect themselves they cooperated with the Shining Path who, like the Viet Cong, defended the peasants’ property in return for taxes which then financed the insurgency.
In response, the Peruvian government gave titles to the farmers who then turned on the insurgents. As a result, the Shining Path’s 84,000 man “army” melted away, their income dried up, their safe havens disappeared, and their leaders were forced into cities where they were quickly arrested. The elapsed time was six months.
Vietnam: Initially in South Vietnam the US approach was a counter-insurgent strategy made up by search and destroy sweeps, whose success was measured by body-counts. But a number of senior leaders believed that US had to offer South Vietnam a more compelling narrative than the one offered by the Communists. So in 1966 a US Army plan called PROVN laid out a program which detailed objectives that could apply to Afghanistan today;
The ultimate objective; a free and independent, non-communist nation. The United States must restructure, better manage and integrate its support effort; provide positive political guidance, under provisos for applying leverage and constraints; redirect the effort to achieve greater security; focus nonmilitary assistance to achieve cohesion within the Vietnamese society; and, orient socio-economic programs to exploit the critical geographic areas, population and resource concentration. PROVN submits that the United States and the Republic of Vietnam must accept the principle that success will be the sum of innumerable, small and integrated localized efforts and not the outcome of any short-duration, single master stroke.
The Lessons from Vietnam: A book analyzing the Vietnam War at the village level based on personal experience explains that “Enjoyment of the general prosperity…is tied closely to access to its source: the land. No other factor looms so large in the consciousness of the peasant.” The author goes on to say that “…for the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese population, ‘government’ has always simply meant the village council,” which under the French, and later the Americans, “…became an instrument of the landlords to maintain a privileged status above the law…”
DeGaulle’s reoccupation of Indochina brought back the landlords who took away land that had been distributed to the peasants by the Viet Minh. These landlords re-imposed taxes and sharecropping (normally 50%). It is no surprise that the people hated this system, and so hated the government under both the French and later the US who did nothing to address this problem in a timely manner. “Land redistribution was an integral part of the [Communist] Party takeover in the rural area [with] the promise of land being one of the principal means of obtaining a core of activists in each village to drive out the government authorities.”
American efforts to promote democracy in Vietnam were also flawed. As Lansdale reported, Diem took “…a step that was to have disastrous political consequences later. In a decree he changed the old custom of village self-government and replaced it with a system of appointed leaders, the new village leaders being named by district and provincial chiefs, who themselves have been appointed by Diem.” He then added, “It took away much of the local initiative upon which modern democracies are founded, transgressed the ancient Vietnamese edict that ‘the Emperor’s rule ends at the village wall…”
Although both sides had a similar narrative – land and democracy – the Communists delivered and the US did not. Saigon and the US promised democracy and capitalism but delivered an authoritarian, mercantilist state as is in Afghanistan today.
Two books that were widely read in the Pentagon drew different lessons from Vietnam. One argues that the US lost the war because the Congress withdrew support for their army. The other argues that the US could have won the war if the Army had applied the CORDS strategy in the villages, rather than search and destroy operations. However, in a 2004 paper the proponent of this latter model tempers his position saying “…the success of CORDS and pacification [is] …a mixed bag.”
I would argue that this is largely a sterile debate; CORDS failed because the promises made to the Vietnamese people were largely unmet. John Paul Vann – the head of CORDS in one of four Corps areas – wrote a strategy paper in the early days of CORDS that is consulted today by US planners. It details the CORDS training plan followed by three single-spaced pages of “method.” This paper spawned the CORDS program that became yet another example of the American tendency to confuse spending money with providing help; to confuse form with function; and to confuse efficiency with outcomes. CORDS was never a program, in any coherent sense, just a laundry-list of objectives devoid of operational substance, just as McChrystal’s plan was.
Nevertheless, today COIN experts widely credit CORDS – and its Phoenix program which targeted the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) – with having destroyed the VC insurgency. While it is true that CORDS reduced the VC from 84,000 members in ’68 to an estimated 56,000 in ’72, this is a reduction by one-third, not its death. VC power in the countryside was not killed by US success in CORDS or the Phoenix Program, but rather it died of neglect by Hanoi. After the Tet Offensive, Hanoi’s strategy for the South was no longer based on a guerilla war. Hanoi ordered the NVA take the lead in fighting the war and the evidence is well documented; from February to May 1968 Hanoi sent 50,000 soldiers to the South, a strategic shift which simply marginalized the VC as a fighting force.
Sorely writes, “It is correct that the VC’s forces were decimated during Tet, as demonstrated by the…necessity to bring NVA forces to fill formerly VC units. Over a relatively short time the enemy’s forces went from three-quarters VC to three-quarters NVA, a dramatic reversal [which] essentially terminated the VC’s influence in the Communist movement.” He adds, “But those forces were not the infrastructure, which continued to flourish until painstakingly rooted out over a period of years. This seems to be how CORDS is seen by the Petraus COIN strategy and the McChrysal plan as being a model for COIN. But he later notes, “...that by 70/71 the VC had virtually been exterminated.” So the problem with the conclusion that CORDS was a success is that post-Tet the fighting had been shifted to main force units and political organizing and taxing were irrelevant activities.
Sorely says as much when he notes that as a result of Tet, the “Communists in the South never recovered from the effects of these losses, progressively losing influence in a movement that was in any event directed and dominated by party leaders in North Vietnam.” He adds that “When after many years of struggle North Vietnam prevailed, the VC found themselves relegated to positions of no importance.”
CORDS is an ill-considered model for Afghanistan if our objective is to help them modernize. Afghans must develop the inputs (the institutions) of democracy and capitalism, not the simply the outputs (elections and soccer stadiums) which are the result of those institutions working successfully. All successful COIN efforts began with understanding what the people really wanted. With that knowledge Americans, the British and the Peruvians have created workable responses to insurgency. We should read history closely, and emulate success.
There is no question that a state can be built from the top down, but a nation is built from villages and neighborhoods upward. It is also true that planned economies, by their nature, can be imposed on a society. But a broad-based, self-sustaining economy is built from the village inward. Stabilizing the rural economy and supporting private entrepreneurship with credit and fair rules is crucial because in the end it is jobs and income which will determine whether most peasants will choose a gun or a plow, or whether he grows poppies or grapes.
History shows that political stability and economic viability begin with a system based on Locke’s classic formulation that governments’ purpose is to ensure “life, liberty and property.” This is not some abstraction, but means, simply, government’s role is to protect your personal security, to insure your freedom to choose where to live and work, and to defend your property.
The first step to do this in Afghanistan would be to institute a system of land tenure based on the rule of law, which provides and incentive to have neighbors work together to settle their own boundaries and then deposit this settled data in a public land registry. Those with a presence in rural Afghanistan – military or civilian – can help villages to establish property registries using satellite mapping and aerial photos. But this should not be a process imposed or run by the central government, which is corrupt and would be incapable of impartially managing a process concerning such enormously valuable assets.
Just as in Japan and California these informal registries will allow the people to use this process to transform their mutual interest in stable tenure into grassroots political organizations whose purpose is to protect their new rights. Rule-of-law can only be maintained if it is merged with the peoples’ most basic, mutual economic interests.
Then as the defender of popular laws, the Afghan state will gain greater political support while at the same time weaken the warlords as their control over land tenure diminishes. In this way, the people will define and empower their state through common purpose not expert planning.
 Gugile Nkwinti, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, South Africa.
 In South Vietnam we created the State of Vietnam, a constitutional monarchy. According to the Geneva Accords of 1954 we agreed to engage in national elections in 1956 but the ”sovereign” state of Vietnam refused to participate and the US backed them. The war began.
 W. Wiser and C. Wiser, Behind Mud Walls 1930-1960, University of California Press, Berkeley, pg. 207.
 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Chapter 9, R. Butler, London, 1821, pg. 295.
 Sheri Berman, “From the Sun King to Karzai,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010, pg.
 “CORDS” is an acronym for Civil Operations and Revolutionary (eventually changed to “Rural”) Development Support, which has been transformed by revisionist history into a success.
 Pg. 2-9.
 Peter F. Schaefer, “Nation Building from Scratch,” The Washington Post, December 27, 2002, pg. A25.
 Glenn Hubbard, Wall Street Journal, 13 Nov. 2009, pg. A19.
 US Government Draft Planning Framework for Reconstruction, Stabilization and Conflict Transformation, US Joint Forces Command J7 Pamphlet 1.0, 1 December 2005.
 See Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, passim and Lord Peter Bauer’s body of work.
 “Economic Empowerment Tasks for Stability Operations,” in Stability Operations and State-Building, US Army Strategic Studies Institute, Oct. 2008, pg. 197.
 Andrew Wilder and Stuart Gordon, “Money Can’t Buy America Love,” Foreign Policy online, 1 Dec. 2009, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/12/01/money_cant_buy_america_love?page=0,1
 See Hard Lessons, SIGIR, Feb. 2009, especially chapters 2 and 3 passim.
 Ibid. pg. 36.
 Ibid. pg. 37.
 Peter F. Schaefer, Foreign Policy online, June 2008, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4325&page=1
 Agriculture alone employs 80% of the population and creates 45% of the GDP.
 Andre Malraux, Anti-Memoirs, Holt, Reinhart & Winston, New York, 1968, Pg. 360.
 Newsweek magazine, Oct. 6, 2002, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2002/10/06/slow-death.html.
 MacArthur, pg. 313.
 Ibid. pg. 309.
 Ibid, pg.313
 See a discussion by the author in “Repeating History,” the DC Examiner, 20 Jan. 2006, pg. 17.
 Edward G. Lansdale, In the Midst of Wars, Harper & Row, New York, pgs. 47-48.
 De Soto, Hernando, The Other Path, Basic Books, 2002 reissue, pp. xi – xxxix.
 An abstract from the Defense Technical Information Center: http://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=AD0377743.
 Race, Jeffrey, The War Comes to Long An, Univ. of California Press, Los Angeles, 1972, passim.
 Ibid, pg. 126.
 In the Midst of Wars, Edward Geary Lansdale, Harper Row, 1972, pg. 356.
 Lewis Sorley, A Better War, Harcourt, Inc, 1999, New York, Ch. 23, “The Final Days,” passim.
 Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1986.
 Andrew Krepinevich, Pacification in Vietnam, 2004, pg. 5.
 Motivational Training in a Counterinsurgency is a roughly typed, ten-page memo which is untitled and undated but written before January 1966.
 Sorely, pg. 69.
 Ibid, pg. 218.
 Ibid, pg. 14.